What brings you here?

When you go to your doctor or primary care provider, what is it that you are typically seeking?

Are you looking to get better? Are you looking for a diagnosis? Are you looking for guidance/mentoring? Are you looking for a voice of authority? Are you looking for a prescription for a pill or medication that you know can take the edge off? Are you afraid? Are you doing it because it’s what society tells you what to do? Have other modalities/providers failed to address your health needs?

I’ve been treating a patient for about a year and half now, somewhat sporadically, providing acupuncture and most recently, herbal medicine. The patient sought me out after my having switched to a new practice location, a new location which provides a more intimate setting, the option for insurance to pay for treatment, and overall a better option for the patient.

In the last ten months, the patient has been exhibiting progressively-worsening symptoms, and has been seeing neurology specialists, working with a PT, and gone through the gauntlet of tests, blood panels and self-medicating with marijuana and hikes in the woods.

Recently, he admitted that all of his tests have returned showing inconclusive results, and his doctors have described his condition as idiopathic. Idiopathic, if you don’t know the term, essentially refers to a situation in which doctors have run through their particular knowledge and expertise, chased the review of systems and differential diagnoses, and have come up short.

The root of this word is interesting. It finds origins in the Greek idioumai, meaning “to appropriate to oneself”, “personal, private”, and properly “particular to oneself”. This is from PIE *swed-yo-, suffixed form of root *s(w)e-, pronoun of the third person and reflexive (referring back to the subject of a sentence), also used in forms denoting the speaker’s social group, “(we our-)selves” (source also of Sanskrit svah, Avestan hva-, Old Persian huva “one’s own,” khva-data“lord,” literally “created from oneself; (OED).

The patient said he felt both angry and relieved, and he struggled to put words to it as I prodded him to say more. I asked him what he was looking for from these tests and procedures. He said that he was hoping for a treatment; that if they knew what it was, maybe they would know how to treat it.

Having worked with him for quite some time now, I have several insights regarding what might be happening with him, at least from the Chinese medical perspective. However, this has been perhaps the first time that what I’ve felt and observed in working with him has elicited a more specific pattern that is known in Western medicine. From the outside, his condition seems very close to Multiple Sclerosis. Progressively worsening, neuronal die-off and mobility issues; most recently, difficulty swallowing, visual and speech changes. I believe this was heavily influenced by an untreated concussion years ago. He is someone who relies on himself and survives on himself. A notable presentation I’ve noticed in the clinical setting, has been a kind of self-deprecatory laughter, most often presenting when describing a very upsetting reality, especially that of a complex of symptoms he’s encountered throughout the week. It is almost sardonic. 

I almost expected him in our exchange to express that he desired to know the name of the disease; he mostly did. But it seemed he wanted to know the diagnosis as much as he didn’t. One of the most curious symptoms has been his description that in order to hold/grasp an object, he has to physically look at it with his eyes first, otherwise his hand cannot meet it. That is, he has to see his own hand.

My own inclination, as a provider, was to want to alleviate the mystery or fill in the unknowns, which for him are many. But I realized mid-interaction that my question (what he is looking for from working with these experts, obtaining tests etc) seemed to match his. Was I looking for a diagnosis in order to treat? Was I looking for a name? 

Several times, the phrase “M.S.” grazed my tongue, and I held back. A large question formed; what good would this do him? First, and foremost, I am not medically qualified to offer a Western medical diagnosis. But secondly, it seemed a new and unknown universe could spring from the supposedly known. It is as much a liability to sort of know than to fully not know. The skill of the practitioner is actually to not make known the guesses all that often. I believe we’re afraid to really approach and accept the full implications of placebo, as we might have to reckon with how our diagnoses are just really good stories. We use these stories to compete, like Greek aidoi, for the prize. Only the prize here, is to get the patient to believe our story more than what they’ve come to tell themselves.

With the inappropriate laughter, I couldn’t help but wonder that the complex of symptoms my patient encountered were, for him, rather unbelievable stories. What I mean is that when being witness to the capabilities of his own body, this man was equally inspired as he was terrified by himself. Overall, his conditions spoke to overactive immune response. But what I felt, and observed as his provider, was someone whose own power had been divorced from its own context. In other words, he’s begun to deny, to disbelieve his own being. Vine Deloria Jr. in his Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto once said, “When death becomes unreal, violence also becomes unreal”. I sense that my patient, in a deep place within him, is a purely sensitive being. But also with this sensitivity came an inability to accept the death of parts of himself along the way. He’s responded by creating in memoriam stories which keep those regions living, at least partially and not in totality. Trauma does this. It elongates the mourning time, which might otherwise involve more specific emotions, feelings, symptoms, all of which show as an emergency. Rather than emergency, he’s transferred these into first stories, that then became unbelievable stories, and finally, legends within himself. The problem with legends, as Plato described to us through his works comparing mythos and logos, was that they were unverifiable and irrefutable. 

I used to scoff at the Western medical provider who’d resort to what felt like such a lazy term in the idiopathic. What I’ve learned, time and time again, and especially in this patient, is that idiopathic is almost too precisely the term. It’s precisely the term that the Western medical provider uses to do everything in their power and expertise to refrain from blaming the patient for their own condition. An autoimmune disease, by nature, is harm that you are enacting upon yourself. That is precisely what it is. When someone asks, “what is the cause of this autoimmune condition?” And the doctor responds, “well, it’s when the body’s own system is attacking itself”, the patient somehow feels better that they have an answer, but not fully a solution. However, if the doctor had said, you did this to yourself, you’d be sure to hear about a possible lawsuit or some kind of censure, in the least, the accusation of poor bedside manner. 

What we have here is the body becomes an auxiliary “self” that is somehow “to the right” of the person. What I mean is that the medical dialogue becomes method through which the person needs an auxiliary blame that is beyond theirself, when the condition is truly idiopathic. It gives the patient temporary breathing room when their condition has potentially self-originated. The problem with this approach is that as the patient bides time, they can become susceptible to building narratives that support the unknown/mysterious symptoms. The mysterious symptoms are so because the person is using the creativity of their own body to create a new outlet for who they are — new life as the dying parts of themselves die off. 

Only, if this becomes too rampant, the story is too imaginative, then the patient creates legends within themselves that they are unable to live up to. They create conditions in which their projected capabilities far exceed what the “who” of their life is capable of. The immune response supersedes the healthy system. Idioumai, as the etymological dictionary defines, describes a condition that is particular in breed to the individual. It cannot be mirrored, except to themselves. If it cannot be mirrored, they cannot have empathy for that aspect of themselves. If they cannot see it, they cannot locate it. As is the case for my patient, it is only when he moves his own hand in the line of sight that he can grasp what he sees. He has to be the one to handle it. 

My job as his provider is to show him that his life and his stories are precisely in his own hand. That his condition, it appears, is idiopathic. One more aspect of this, I believe helps elucidate the condition. My patient is getting a little older. He’s not elderly, but he’s also no young sprite. It is possible that when aging we can often face the reality that we are not who we used to be, and that this becomes the so-called legend. The body, no longer able to finance that former self, a sort of somatic alimony, demands the body to continue to operate under the same conditions, requiring the same resources, and in my patient’s case, freedoms. He cannot accept that he cannot be free. As such, he becomes a slave to himself. And not even to himself, but his own body. The body in this case becomes an auxiliary excuse, a slave to the self. Rather than becoming accountable for who he is, he punishes the body that finances that self. What occurs, as Vine Deloria Jr. suggests, is violence, and specifically, violence that is unreal to the person. When this patient observes and recounts his own story, this is when the symptoms really begin to reveal. He laughs tragically at the complex of symptoms he encounters, the way a drunken man might describe his escapades the night before; a sort of “Can you believe that shit?” sentiment. “I mean, could I be any more pathetic? “Could I be in a worse situation?” These are examples that are not directly uttered by the patient, but reveal themselves in comments and inconsistencies in how the patient acts, performs or retells their symptom in narrative, and how they actually appear or present in the clinical setting. When attempts to reveal how he suffers to himself, with the witness of another, it is sabotaged by self-mockery. When he describes he’s in pain, he hears only the laughter at its absurdity.

This is a strong example in which the patient demonstrates that they are their own author, and the story they are telling is in their own hands. By refraining from offering a diagnosis, the patient moves closer to their own diagnosis. The skill of the practitioner is to ask the right questions. My question to this patient is/was: what are you looking for from these doctors? Is he looking for them to say that they are more expert in his life than he is? Because, experience has shown me while working with him, that he is the master of his own destiny. He has made his mind more powerful than his body. But this has led to making himself a slave to his own body. If he can blame his own body, he won’t have to blame himself.

It is of my experience and opinion that this reveals the true limitation of Western medical diagnosis, and it is that our conditions are frequently idiopathic. We cultivate persons/personalities who by every ounce of themselves resist the possibility that someone else could be in control of who they are. We cultivate attitudes of supreme control over who we become, what we do, what we’re capable of, and what we leave. A prescient teacher has often noted that what would otherwise be an emergency, in terms of disease and the body, becomes instead a chronic illness. What we cultivate as chronic illness is perhaps a persona that has outlived its own usefulness, but cannot let go of the idea of immortality. I am not saying that my patient wants to be rendered immortal. However, when our stories supersede who we are, then we can only be known in our stories and how good of a story we can tell. 

Rather, health or wellbeing must take into consideration the limitations of knowing, of certainty, and this is true of who we are. 

Circling back: why do you seek out your provider? Are you looking for a diagnosis? Are you looking for clarity? Are you looking for better ways to get to know yourself?

I might suggest, start here: get acquainted with the most unknown aspects of who you are, and rather than solving them, interrogating or exposing them, work towards accepting the mystery. The best stories are those that don’t tell you what to believe about yourself. The best stories are those that want to deepen what it means to be.

Interview with a Chinese Medicine Provider

My sister in-law, Heidi Warren, asked me some questions regarding my experience with alternative or complementary medicine. The themes are topical for the current crises we face, so I thought I would share.

1. What is your training? Where did you get your training? Why did you go into this field?

I studied acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine at Daoist Traditions College of Chinese Medical Arts in Asheville, NC. The program was a double-masters, and included a large portion devoted to Western pathophysiology and pharmacology. The last two years of the program included a clinical internship, working with patients in both student clinic and offsite capacities. I got into the field through my own health. I was on track to start a music therapy program, having devoted most of my life to the study of sound. I decided not to go forward with the masters, and spent a good amount of time soul-searching and somewhat confused about the trajectory of my life. A close friend had just started acupuncture school in Maryland, and suggested that I receive acupuncture. After going to a community acupuncture clinic for a few sessions, I wasn’t that impressed, nor did I experience noticeable change. However, I started to read about the theory of Chinese Medicine, and the theory of the Five-Elements, and I felt the medicine capitulated a lot that I’d come to believe. I also happened to work, at the time, at a coffee shop a floor below a community acupuncture clinic, and so I was able to engage with an acupuncturist regularly, who answered my questions. Not long after, I came to the conclusion that I could pursue this as a meaningful career, as well as one that could support me financially, while also making space to enjoy what I love, such as music, writing and art.

2. How do you define holistic health?

I define holistic health as a modality whose central approach is based in compassion. This involves commitment to understanding the individual’s health as a whole expression of their life, rather than as a collection of signs and symptoms, or that they are even “solveable”. I’ve come to accept that I cannot answer for a person “who” they are; I can only work with them to develop more efficient ways to regain that for themselves, when it has been lost, and disease ensues.

3. How do you feel acupuncture works in conjunction with traditional medicine? Or not?

Acupuncture and herbal medicine are tremendous tools that can fill in several gaps in the conventional medical approach. For instance: Western Medicine does not emphasize the importance of nutrition in health, though food is a medicine that we encounter 3-4 times every day. It is preventative medicine. At the same time, Western Med. often will not, even in medical school, emphasize this aspect of health, as it is considered moot to have a conversation with a patient about their diet. Sometimes, this is due to time constraint, sometimes there is no excuse. As a result, it does not treat digestive issues that well. Many major pharmaceuticals have long-term unseen side effects on the system, that lead to a high price for their intervention. Chinese Medicine carries the same principles regardless the modality. For acupuncture, there are points that are said to “Clear Heat”. There are also foods, herbs, movement exercises, essential oils that “clear heat”. This means that regardless the tool we are using within the auspices of the medicine, our treatment strategy remains the same. So long as the diagnosis is clear well-deduced; the treatment strategy will be effective, because it is in line with the diagnosis. The patient has heat, so you clear heat. Patient has stomach heat, or heat in the digestive system. You can send them home, after acupuncture, with lifestyle modifications such as specific changes in nutrition habits, that will reflect your strategy. After the acupuncture, they have a tool they can incorporate to emphasize what is being accomplished in the clinic, outside of the clinic.

Pain is another area that CM treats effectively, where WM’s major avenues are: pharmaceuticals that can be damaging to the liver, as well as addictive; and surgery as last resort. There is a lot of clinical evidence that supports the use of acupuncture for pain. There are ready instances where acupuncture doesn’t simply reduce or manage pain, but corrects it, showing promising results as a low-risk, virtually non-invasive intervention. With that said, WM can still do what it does best (often emergency medicine), while CM can successfully fill in the gaps, and in many cases, serving as a safety net when conventional treatment is too risky or too costly.

The last thing I’ll say about the two modalities’ complementary quality is this: I think it would be a disservice for the Western perspective to turn its interest in CM into simply trying to translate CM medical concepts into the conventional.

For instance, there is a lot of push to directly translate diagnosis and diagnostic codes. Liver Qi and Blood stasis might look like Hepatitis, or liver cirrhosis, but the diagnosis and treatment depends on the individual’s presentation. It doesn’t always directly translate and there is a nuance. WM has to be willing to accept CM as its own medicine, and this is directly reflective of people who see the world in a completely separate way. Even in fields such as neuroscience, scientists are beginning to understand that there may never be a fully unified theory on the brain, what it is, what is does. Instead, they are accepting that how the Chinese or even the French conceptualize the brain is different than the American researcher. CM describes the body as a phenomenon very differently that how it is seen in the West. In that way, it is a different language, and working together, the modalities might need to accept that there is no equivalent explanation for how a disease progresses, or even for tangible concepts.

For instance, there is no Western equivalent to the concept of “Qi”, a pivotal concept in CM theory, and the Western tendency is to reject the medicine outright. Rather, they need to be able to coexist without necessarily having to have everything equally translatable. This is where CM is very strong, as it finds paradox, contradiction, and the unknown as powerful tools for dynamically navigating an individual’s disease.

4. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to go into this field?

Primarily, it is not something you are going to understand in a short amount of time. The medicine is designed to deepen and become more embodied and dynamic the longer it is practiced.

Second, be open. Most of the time, you are going to learn information that appears conflicting or confusing, sometimes wrong. Being open, and absorbing the information kind of osmotically trains you to hold space for the patients and presentations that are the exception to the rule.

Third, don’t make it something it is not. Chinese Medicine is a modality based in observation, cultivated, curated, argued, compared, and organized by thousands and thousands of devoted practitioners. The medicals texts, schools and and exhaustive studies were built out of individuals who realized that to observe a patient with compassion and genuine interest, they had to become better observers in all aspects of their life. The efficacy of the medicine is contingent upon the cultivation of the practitioner. If you don’t like how Qi is conceptualized, don’t try to change it. Try to understand it see how the rest of the medicine uses it. Try to objectively observe what the medicine is “doing”, and then do that. CM isn’t about being the best. There is no best flower or leaf; everything has to contextualize. By not making CM something it is not, the practice naturally contextualizes you.

5. Do you treat cancer patients?

I don’t specifically work with cancer patients, but I have worked with them in the the clinic several times.

Though cancer might be considered a more advanced disease, the method of diagnosis and treatment protocol would remain the same regardless of the perceived severity.

6. What do you feel are the benefits of acupuncture for cancer patients?

There is a lot of evidence coming out right now showing the promise of acupuncture in oncology care. Acupuncture is exceptional in treating and managing pain, and is strong in improving psychoemotional health.

With that said, apart from the cancer itself, a cancer diagnosis and treatment can take an almost holographic toll on a patient’s life, including their mental health. In addition, they are often navigating not simply their own anxiety, but the reinforced anxiety of those in their life, who either struggle with the concept of death and dying, or have never confronted it. As a result, these patients are often managing a lot of unforeseen auxiliary factors in their healing journey.

Acupuncture, from my experience and perspective is exceptional for aiding individuals in transition. The medicine utilizes potent metaphors to observe and interact with the body and the environment. Metaphors, in my mind, are especially profound because they help us deal with death. By including two disparate or unrelated images together in a single image, you are trained to accept the unseen gap between both of them, or that space. It is hard to see how a person dies. It is easy to see how a blade of grass among others can die, but the grass remains. Cancer is often seen as an issue with cells that are unable to mature and experience apoptosis. They are children, and they want to play with more children. The cells proliferate, and there’s too much heat. In a body that understands, it can accept there are childlike aspects of the self that, due to issues or stress in pivotal life transitions, were unable to mature, and also transition and die away. In other words, this may not actually be the case, for this person with cancer, or that person. But the medicine is designed utilizing this kind of tool, and therefore by nature lends itself to reducing the intensity of that transition, or maturing process.

Therefore, I could argue that there are significant benefits in acupuncture for the cancer patient. At the end of the day, it is about the individual, and really seeing “them” – “who” they are.

7. Many people do not believe alternative medicine has any real advantages for overall health. What would you say to those people to help them understand the value of complementary health services?

Many people do not believe conventional medicine has real advantages for overall health. There are people who don’t get flu shots, who refuse vaccines. There are those who don’t take any medications. My mother doesn’t typically trust doctors, and has good reasons for doing so. She rarely takes medicines for colds, never gets a flu shot – she is someone who doesn’t anaesthetise herself or seek outside answers for her issues. This is mainly because she is someone who believes in doing whatever she can in her own power to understand and improve her situation. She’s lived her whole life in the cold and hard winters of Western MA. A few years ago she had a major hip replacement, and not only didn’t take painkillers post-surgery, she also didn’t experience pain during her recovery. Is she wrong or right? It doesn’t really matter. A good and effective medicine is one that is effective and offers results. But it’s also one that isn’t based on the whims of people’s beliefs.

However, this does not mean you can’t meet a person in the space where they believe. CM as a complementary medicine is effective and viable because it seeks to understand the context out of which the individual and their disease springs. We are seeing now that the faith we place in our experts and the answers provided by research are insufficient for the COVID-19 pandemic. What is clear is that there is this gap between crisis and alleviation. Research is a form of faith, and sometimes it proves insufficient. It takes time and innovation. But in the meantime, all we have is faith. By nature, medicine is the reorientation of worldview according to what observed is changing. Medicine is always involved in crisis. People will always encounter crises in their worldviews, or what they think is possible or is or isn’t real. The current moment feels very “unreal”. The virus might be more deadly for those who resist what is changing on a larger scale. This doesn’t go to say that if you don’t believe in CM, you’ll be effected negatively or are stupid.

Instead, it is only to point out that rarely does medicine reflect what someone doesn’t believe in terms of health. Instead, it reflects precisely what people have to accept to get better. The most profound aspect of complementary medicine is that it is not a monoculture. It is, by nature, biodiverse in its view. Researchers suggest that the yellow and very sweet bananas that are in every grocery store will, in less than a decade, become extinct. The reason purported is that despite there being dozens of banana species, the species that have been cultivated and bred for modern consumption has led to its sole reliance. Because of this monoculturing, it becomes very susceptible to disease and especially blight; not unlike how COVID-19 is operating now. In a rainforest, there may be pockets of other plants, other bananas and overall greater biodiversity. When a disease comes through, the banana’s chances of surviving are higher.

The same can be said about complementary medicine. Western Medicine is a monoculture. The crisis in healthcare at this moment, you could argue, has a relationship to the fact that conventional medicine has championed itself as the singular authority on the state of the Western individual’s health – and this is further aided by its global presence, i.e. not merely of interest to the Western body. Here we have a moment where an unknown and especially virulent pathogen is significantly devastating not simply the medical worldview, but of nearly every system that supports the proliferation of the human being. Complementary medicine is significant because it, by nature, represents the biodiversity of worldview. It represents all of the perspectives, the plants if you will, that were unable to flourish, because one took the helm.

This does not mean WM is wrong, or not valuable or effective. With the current climate of the world, it does suggest that complementary medicine will be an absolutely crucial light, in a dark time. Chinese herbalists are chomping at the bit, as they are coming together to push forward formulas here in the US that were being used successfully to treat COVID-19 infections and to mitigate further spread through formulas designed to prevent transmission. The difference is that someone could continue to believe complementary medicine and Chinese medicine are bullshit. But if it saves lives, if it offers an effective avenue, medicine will continue to operate beyond what a person believes, including what is the common belief in conventional medicine. Only a medicine that evolves is one that can meet a disease that evolves.

8. Why is acupuncture controversial?

Anything that is unknown is controversial for someone. Even the things that are known are controversial for someone. A good practitioner of medicine is someone who is going to be able to operate through and beyond drama. Western doctors have patients who sue them because they look like an ex-wife, or because they used a word in the clinical setting that rubbed them the wrong way, on that day. Medicine is the place where you become very sober about how truly diverse people are. It is there that you realize to what profound extent you cannot take things personally. The person is suffering, is suffering, is suffering, is suffering. From a Chinese medical POV, it is relevant where the individual grew up, what foods they were being fed, whether or not they smoke, if they are sitting for long periods of time. But we are not gathering this information to demonize them for it. Drama would be antithetic to a healthy prognosis. Acupuncture is great because, in the simplest way of putting it, it is the gentlest way you can injure a person – you are piercing them, but without it being perceptible. When you injure another in a perceptible way, either through words, emotionally or physically, the drama turns on. The response is often worse than the original injury – yet another context for cancer.

But acupuncture bypasses that layer or level, and allows you to have a conversation with the person’s body. You then use both the acupuncture and your diagnostic skills in listening, asking, taking the pulse etc, to streamline what questions you will ask. The major issue with asking someone what is wrong is that if you ask them preemptively, they may not have anything wrong, or depending on how it’s asked, they might sense in your words that something deeper is going on inside them and suddenly they are in an emergency, and have to figure that out.

In these moments, the individual can create on the spot, the suggested disease or issue. Questions can act as placebo. Our bodies are creative, emergent, for good or ill. It’s rare for a person to simply volunteer that something is wrong with them, especially in the day-to-day. As a culture, we are shown to reject feeling, to not trust emotion, and to suppress and repress. This translates to people who will not volunteer information unless they are coerced. Elsewhere, we collectively do a good job at talking “around things” rather than addressing them directly. With that said, we typically don’t admit something is wrong until we are in a state of emergency; because at that point something fundamentally has to change about us. We have to make a choice to move forward. We have the capacity to evolve from the micro to macro; but the implications of such a dynamic change in who we are, is terrifying. It is terrifying that it could be that easy. It’s safer to be difficult, to cling to the old, to remain static and hold fast to the familiar.

This is why Chinese medicine, and especially acupuncture are exceptional tools for this kind of person, because acupuncture can bypass the need to ask the person to explain their symptom or themselves directly. Explaining a symptom directly is one that is showing in emergency. In Chinese medicine, we talk about this in the context of a “shen-to-shen” or healing presence. This is where your listening ability and ability to be present with the individual carries into the needles that you are using for treatment. You have the opportunity to move past the surface of the body where the symptom is often showing itself, and to have a direct dialogue with an interior landscape that is reflective of the effected organ system. You then spend the majority of the treatment observing what changes in the patient’s body as you penetrate. Often, the patient will volunteer their story, or the underlying contributor to the symptom. But this doesn’t always come in the form of words.

In essence, the patient has their own dramas. The practitioner’s job is to acknowledge that they are experiencing it in precisely the way they are showing it. The next step is helping to reduce the physiological attachment the body has to those stories, events, traumas, replacing them with blood flow, qi flow, whatever you want to call it. At the end of the day, we’re helping return “who” the person is to themselves. Everyday circumstances invite in new material and comparison, but once in the body, those phenomena can get stuck, stagnated or trapped, and they can compete for the space and the body’s resources. A virus acts in this way. They say that viruses aren’t quite alive. They aren’t exactly a “who”, but once they’ve penetrated the exterior of the body, they suddenly have all of the resources and environment to allow a new “who” to proliferate. The body, in this process, suddenly senses a systemic conflict; their immune system, or body authority is in doubt.

Acupuncture works in the interstices, because by nature it is creating outlet where outlet has closed. The body is covered in outlets, or portals, whether the pores, mouth, nose, ears etc. But there are autonomic dramas that are based in survival mechanisms that marshal the major areas of the body to shut down, when there has been perceived invasion and compromise. These are fear, anger, grief, worry and even joy. These are the faultlines, the climates, the seasons, the altitudes, and the material earth. Acupuncture bypasses the dramas that are compromising these major influences in times of crisis. We are unable to ask the earth directly why it hurts. This is too great and complex a question, and too complex an answer. The earth has its own agency. Acupuncture penetrates the individual and says “You are here,” when the winds of change and crisis are too dynamic to navigate. It’s a way for the body to social distance from itself when your body believes change is so painful, you’d rather die. Politics are the global disease. Qi is the human being beyond the political. Complementary or alternative medicine is the needle. Acupuncture regulates the necessary and inevitable change of worldview.

Perspectives For More Embodied Health and Wellbeing

I read an article recently that discusses smarter work ethic, and it is based on Elon Musk’s 3-step approaches toward problem solving and a theory called “First principles thinking”. I found the concepts helpful and decided to apply them to understanding health.

I have long been interested in the concept of “what is health”. With exhausting debates regarding the clearly broken healthcare system in the US, it is pretty easy to overlook more fundamental concepts regarding who we are, what we need and want, and especially what we consider to be healthy living.

Without looking at the question “what is health?”, without taking time to understand and define it for ourselves, I would argue, it is going to add to a lot of misinformation and frustration regarding maintaining wellbeing.

In the article, the author posits that the “first principles thinking” asks you to “identify and define your current assumptions”. He gives the examples, “Growing my business will cost a lot of money” or “I have to struggle and starve to be a successful artist”.

Further he says, “Though most of our life we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do, with slight variations.” He suggests that this kind of reasoning doesn’t clarify, but may be adding to our complex issues. For the purposes of this article, I want to apply this to health.

Health is problem that we are consistently trying to identify, simplify and clarify. We are consistently, both collectively and individually trying to remain well, even if we are not evidently using language that is health-specific.

We do this, by associating wellbeing with what others, or the majority, consider to be wellbeing. The founding principles of the US Constitution, for instance, delineates that of all inalieanable rights, the most important are the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. All three of these are holographic aspects of what I might call health.

Musk says “It is important to view knowledge as a sort of semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get to the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.” I really like this metaphor and want to apply it to health.

Once broken down into basic principles, the article says, you can begin to create new insightful solutions, from scratch. The article is further anchored in research regarding the first principles theory, but also a psychological concept called “functional fixedness”. This is the “tendency to fixate on the typical use of an object or one of its parts. When we’re faced with complex problems, we default to thinking like everybody else.”

By identifying basic assumptions, breaking them down into basic truths, and creating new solutions, we have the capacity to “uncover” solutions to our health issues.

Functional fixedness, the research says, tends to overlook four types of features possessed by a problem object (parts, material, shape and size) because of the functions closely associated with the object and its parts. To overcome functional fixedness, the research says, to add new information about the object or the problem (elaborate) or reinterpreting old information, a process called “re-encoding”.

I would like to apply these concepts to health, and specifically to what we consider disease, as disease is often the “problem” we associate with health.

Identify and define current assumptions:

What are the fundamental assumptions we have about disease? Perhaps the most fundamental of assumptions about disease is that they are too complex to understand individually. We require a specialist, we require a medicine, we require an expert to sort it out. The term “Complex”, for instance has its origins in psychoanalysis via Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. A complex is a “core pattern” of emotions, memories and perceptions and wishes in the personal unconscious organized around a common theme, such as power or status. By nature, even our languaging reflects an assumption around disease processes as not being simple to sort it. We tend to consider ourselves complex, with complex needs, feelings and beliefs.

Disease, applied to these theories, is related to assumptions regarding what we consider to be healthy and what we consider is unhealthy. I want to take this further and create a semantic tree to help us understand more fundamental principles regarding what health is.

The Roots: What are the roots of health?

When a person gets sick, whatever the condition, they want to know why. They want to “know”. I want to suggest that behind this more fundamentally is wanting to “connect”. The person is disconnected from a process occurring in their body; it has lost its context, and is diverting attention from what they consider to be “themselves”. The person rarely wants to know it all. When they have the “flu”, they don’t really want to know if it could be a more insidious condition. They want to know enough that they can move on with their lives, to solve the discrepancy and return to regular programming. Musk contextualizes his theories in thinking and problem solving and “knowing”. I would like to applied this to health and disease and suggest that the roots of health are embedded in a loss of knowing. The basic principle associated with the roots of our health is embedded in knowing what is happening.

Further, when the person doesn’t know what is happening, they are dealing with a loss of recognition. When this happens, disease often takes the form of “Self vs Other”. The basic assumption regarding disease here is that when the person doesn’t recognize something that is happening in themselves, they retreat to this way of thinking about their health.

But, sticking to the basic assumption, Self vs. Other is not a root issue; it is a branch issue. Recognition is experiencing and just “knowing”. “Self vs Other” indicates analogy, as Musk indicated. Our basic assumption when we get sick is to break it down into an issue between yourself and something outside of you. Other is an analogy for Self, but it is not quite like self.

Recognition, and what I am calling the roots or fundamental principles of health, is beneath and beyond needing to know “what”. Recognition is experiencing and feeling nourished by the knowing. It is experiencing and being nourished by knowing that you are.

Let’s look to the branch to clarify the roots of health.

Branches: What are the branches of health?

This, I would suggest, is actually where disease begins. This is when recognition fails. Maybe we are unable to recognize, maybe we recognize too much, or we compromise what we innately recognize.

We want to know “what” specifics, or we specifically don’t want to know: We want to know the why, who, what, where” regarding disease. “Where is it located, why is this happening to me? When will it end, when will I get cancer, if all of the men in my family got cancer?”

We have a blindspot, we cannot locate an internal sense of recognition in a new encounter. This is where we tend to first get lost or confused, as the situation challenges our sense of recognition.

“Is health health? Is health love, friendship, community, spirit?”

Rather than asking the question “what is health”, we tend to replace this programming with “What could be the cause of the disease, now?” Is it bacteria this time, a virus, is it cancer, is it mental, is it terminal, did I get this from the children I was around who were sick?”

This is level of reasoning by analogy. This is copying what other people do, with slight variations. This kind of thinking or knowing is nearly endless and constitutes the bulk of disease. This is building knowledge and solving problems based in prior assumptions. They are the “best” practices approved by majority. We tend to all exist in a level of negotiating what is collectively considered healthy being. Conventional Medicine practices are based in this kind of reasoning. You are reasoning with yourself, “Could this symptom be this?”

Western doctors are trained to sort through all of the possible conditions that your complex of symptoms might indicate, according to past literature and empirical experience. However, the limitation of this kind of thinking is that you become susceptible to the assumptions regarding what disease and therefore what health can look like. It is embedded in compromising what you recognize to be self-evident, and what you consider to be innately nourishing by the exchange.

The branches are where we are voluntarily willing to compromise the fundamental sense of connection/knowing. Sometimes, you let the other person speak, you let others be, and you do not involve yourself. This is the space that fills the person with the most breadth and volume as an individual, but it has the possibility of distending, branches that can start to draw too much from the root, and the tree can only grow so wide. It grows high, but its sensitive to wind.

Too many branches, too many compromises, the tree might live a long time, but what you’re able to see or have access to minimizes. This means that it will be harder to really know what wellbeing is for you.

In the branch level, you might tend to a lot of confusing messaging regarding your health. You might get colds easily, you might rely too much on what others tell you is a good practice. “What should I take for when I have a random spasm in my leg? What should I take if the bottom of my foot feels cold? What should I do when the soup is too hot? What should I do if my tooth hurts?” Suddenly, you’re on 10 supplements, or a medication that defines you, because it embeds itself in constantly negotiating your relationship with the group, another, or with the specialist.

This is the level of chronic pain. Your body is not very clear about what it is experiencing, and that give and take is something that tends to wander in the body in its loud confusion. You are aware that you are in pain, but you don’t quite know why. This is often emphasized more when you are under stress; work, relationships and generally being out in the world.

The more pronounced the pain, the more the root is being replaced by the branch. In acute stages, where pain is extreme, it is testament to how compromising of who we are for what we collectively agree health looks like. This is embedded in empathy. It is painful to know that there is suffering in the world, whether in our family or social group, or world. The more painful it is for you, the more it conveys how your root is being compromised. Over time, we are more willing to submit to chronic states of disease, to hold each other even when it’s toxic, because the thinking that involves reasoning by analogy, says that connection means suffering and sacrifice. Without regulation, we are willing to cut out pounds of flesh for one another as testament to how much we care, how much we are willing to reveal our humanity to be relevant in the group. A root conversation is one that doesn’t need to prove that you are, especially to yourself. This is not bad or evil, it is tragic. Tragedy defines our current medical models. Even the comedies are tragic. When someone like Chris Farley died, we couldn’t quite sort out the fact that his whole persona was built upon self-deprecation. We laughed not because he was funny, but because it was tragic to a degree that clarified we didn’t have it as bad as him.

You can see how, in this level, disease can “look” like anything. It is a maladaptive way of thinking to consider that all cancer has similar appearances. It is our societal way of looking to another when someone is suffering and saying, “Do you know what is happening here?” We then combine our past experiences to construct what we think is happening in them. But at the root of cancer, is the same root as the common cold. Our basic assumptions can actually prevent the individual who is suffering from getting better. When the person with cancer suddenly feels great, decides they want to stop treatment and want to go on a drive across the country or travel the world, we say, “No, Mary, you’re sick. Your condition is serious. You need to take this seriously. You need x” This can complicate the possibility for the person to heal, because it is based in not in the roots of health, but instead what we collectively feel as anxiety regarding the individual’s own agency regarding their life, and our inability to return to them who they are.

Leaves: What are the leaves of health?

What are the leaves of health? Looking at leaves, these provide the tree with the most immediate protection from over-consumption of external influences, like moisture and light. Moisture is the past, light is the the future. The extension of our resources too far-in-advance can sever nourishment to the root.

The leaves are the most diverse appearing in the concept of health, but really they represent adaptability. The leaves give you the optionsthat reflect the healthy kind of diversity that is represented in nature. They are, by nature, preventative. They carry the day-to-day into the moment.

This means that you are not meant to spend exorbitant energy on maximizing them, or even focusing on them. The leaves are sort of checks and balances and they are in the realm of “How to”. No matter where you go, you encounter “information”, and that information demonstrates “what it is” by what it is doing. You do yoga by going to yoga. You do meditation by doing meditation. The tree is a tree by being a tree. It doesn’t innately help you to know that a tree is a tree. No single individual’s way of doing something is completely knowable, recognizable, or can constitute the entire method of keeping well. The tree metaphor isn’t suggesting that you should go be a tree; cut off your arms and replace them with branches and leaves. These act as inspiration, ways of thinking, and are resistant to habituation, as they are always changing. Habituation happens most often in the branch level. The leaves change enough, such that they are hard to track longer than the impression they give you.

The leaves, ultimately, help you change up the recognition and the “what”, the roots and branches respectively, but they aren’t immediately able to answer your health concern. They are there to acknowledge that there is a health concern. They are there to be witness with their signatures of constant nature of change, from the deepest levels of being, to the most superficial.

In this level we are not exactly “connecting” – connecting would involve give and take, negotiation and compromise; more akin to the branches. This is the level of “I’m thinking about”, as well as the level of thought. It is trying on a new face and seeing how it fits. When the weather changes, we are being offered the possibility of a new face, to be someone else for a change. When the weather changes drastically, it spells a face that collectively and drastically needs a makeover.

Without roots, the leaves will not provide you with a lasting health benefit. Without branches, comparison to what has been done in one’s experience, the leaves break off easily, or cannot even manifest.

This would translate as always trying a diet but never sticking to it, or going to an acupuncturist once a month and expecting it to cure cancer. This would be wanting to feel better, but eating a cupcake with your peppermint tea. The leaves of a tree can only grow to a certain shape and size. This means that you cannot embody all of the leaves, all of the time. The seasons are a testament to being adaptable in terms of what is really authentic and recognizable to you. They are how the natural world shows you how they are choosing to fundamentally change. They are not interested in negotiating what nature should look like. Nature doesn’t doubt, nor does it resist change. It utilizes change.

During the fall and the winter, the leaves show their true colors, and they break off and drift away, compost for others. They are, by nature, related to vestigial evolutionary states of being where we could not distinguish or recognize self. This left us susceptible to participating in creation, but not quite being able to observe it long enough to be in the joy of it; or to gather the full image to contain the image. Human beings want to preserve. But the leaves are a testament to knowing that nothing really can be preserved, even the root. Research tells us that leaves change color in the fall, because the trees are producing chemicals that are toxic to parasitic insects that would compromise their structures before the first frost. But I like to think that the trees are purging all of the things that the world told them they had to be while it changed. The trees welcome the fall and winter because its a time that everyone sheds their masks, and lets go of what is painful and toxic.

Growth without consciousness can look like pain. Pain without consciousness can look like violence.

Being, without growth, there is no recognition – the parts of the whole are unable to regularly nourish themselves.

thought has being and is associated with the leaves; but an idea has breadth and corresponds more to the branch.

way is akin to the root, and it really is only fundamental to you, and cannot be compared and mimicked and embodied by anyone or thing other than yourself. By nature, they resemble the root, through gesture, through a signature, but they are not roots. Like roots, they draw you towards your inquiry, but what you think you recognize does not necessarily equal what your root needs. Sometimes a walnut looks like a brain, and it may be said to nourish the brain, and it might in certain circumstances; but this is not guaranteed for you. Roots guarantee what you recognize is what you need, if you recognize it at all.

This means that in the process of disease, if you do not recognize what is happening, you are communicating to yourself that you have accepted the need to change fundamentally, but along the way you developed doubt regarding the new programming system.

You then tried to sort out the discrepancy in the branches, and they are manifested in all of these knots that bind what you believe to be true about yourself and others. You start to create more anchored assumptions in your idea of what is possible, and the tree can only grow a certain way. Fewer birds want to hang on your perches. You provide only so much shade, and your branches grow dry, unable to foster biodiverse soil. You develop molds, or a parasitic caterpillar hangs in your branches.

Examples of leaves of health:

      • Health: Eating well, exercise, behavioral practices, yoga and meditation, connection.

      • Love: What attracts partner, what trust looks like, how connection feels.

      • Friendships and community: How to attract tribe and people who make you grow and help you feel comfortable and heal, community building, setting community goals, common interests.

      • Spirit: personal practice, internal clarity, communication with unseen, more foundational components of nature and self.

You might notice that “health” is listed under the leaves of health. Health as a concept is itself redundant. This is often why people tend to disregard health, or don’t tend to take care of their health until it becomes an issue, because health can look like anything; but what is fundamentally healthy for you remains in the level of recognizing it when you’re experiencing it. It can’t be told to you, and it is not something that really can be compromised. If it is compromised, it changes you, fundamentally.

This, of course, is why you have the consistent possibility to change yourself fundamentally. But this comes at the cost of clarity. This is why I am including health among the “leaves” of health, because it is often beneficial to understand when thoughts regarding what is healthy are innately malleable.

Sometimes disease is our way of temporarily forgoing clarity, so that we can restructure what we assume to be true about who we are, from the ground up. Sometimes your leg is bum because you want yourself to walk differently, because you know you are not the same person you used to be. Part of you still believes you are. How might you sort out the part of yourself that is still in doubt of what you’ve already decided to fundamentally change? You can find inspiration in the leaves, you can change colors, you can let birds spend some time in your branches, but they are going to feel like distractions and external pressures that add to the weight of who you are. When we are in the process of fundamentally changing from the root, we become susceptible to structural fractures, falls in our ego, falls in our body—the change is not gradual, but dramatic, and the more dramatic, the more painful. One day, the evergreen turns bright orange.

A further extrapolation of this, is the vein on the leaf. The veins of the leaf resemble the branches, they contain features that carry over from the “what” of veins in the body, the branches of trees, the rivers. What health is, can look like anything – this is the ultimate gift that changes the appearance of the natural world, and informs us regarding what is possible. It is a reminder that health does change, disease can change, even when it appears it is hopeless. Health changes but it doesn’t tell you how to change.

The major discrepancy regarding our languaging of “Self vs Other” is that it lumps all other things other than self into a vague and threatening possibility. Cancer is one of the most clear expressions of this. Not only do you have the threat of the Other at the border, it now has form and is borrowing from the structural integrity of who you are. It resembles you, but you don’t fully believe it’s happening. It is a part of yourself, a promise that you once made regarding who you wanted to be and it was never fulfilled or denied, but it’s held onto your changing identity. It’s remained the same. It is a part of yourself that is familiar but you no longer recognize. It is one that has potentially been isolated for too long from the rest of who you are, and it starves for connection and community, to be included in all the rest of the cells, the millions of little landscapes within you.

The other major discrepancy with the Self vs Other language, is that it is embedded in the fundamental assumption that other phenomena don’t have their own agency. To call a bacteria evil, or to consider a virus or parasite disgusting, and emphasizing the need to eradicate them, from the flea to the mosquito to the bird to another human, suggests that we are denying that other living things have their own agency.

This is embedded in the branch level. When we get stuck in thinking processes that use reasoning by analogy, we are in danger of creating analogies that only relate to our own selves. This means that if another’s life, their desires, their freedom and individual pursuit of happiness do not resemble our own, we begin to build branches specifically to shield us, to create boundaries that keep them from infringing upon our lives. If the branches are too thick, and the canopy too dense, it starts to prevent fauna, even of our tree’s own ilk and network from growing and thriving. We become just a creeping, invading species that wreaks havoc on the system. You are choice without loyalty to change and loyalty to growth.

Without challenging assumptions regarding our health and what we accept in terms of what disease is and should look like,when you experience a condition, it might develop away from the thought or leaves of health, into ideas about health. This will grow into assumptions regarding the trajectory of your life, and will bend more toward the limiting mortality. Once an idea has access to the root, it informs the structure what is possible. Health chooses to be open-ended. It chooses to bloom when the time is right.


Look to the fundamental assumption of health: That it is too complex to sort out.

    • Is it a root issue?

    • Is it a branch issue?

    • Is it a leaf issue?

By nature, loss or compromise of health is a root issue. It deals with a loss of connection. When you are not in a state of ease, it suggests a confusion of experience. The other levels attempt to sort out the exact location of the doubt. When we simply cannot face the doubt we have about whether we are loved, connected, whether we recognize the source of the suffering, this is pain.

By nature, the treatment for pain is connecting with what you recognize in yourself, even if it is difficult. Giving up something that you recognize is compromising the root of yourself, i.e. the fundamental assumptions you have about what it is like for you to be well, has the capacity to create new roots, without the need for new branches and other compromises and new thoughts. When the root is compromised, the other two levels tend toward dampness and confusion.

Heat, inflammation, stress and general unease have their source in the loss of the root, and in dampness and confusion. When dampness reaches the level of the leaf, being and wellness feel too complex to sort out. At this level, there is no answer that we hear from others or that we give ourselves feels sufficient. This could look like arthritis, fibromyalgia, xenophobia, or chronic conditions, often involving physical or psychological or emotional pain that are vaguein nature.

What level of health are you operating from?

To overcome our fixedness, the research and the natural world tell us to add new information regarding the object of our health inquiry. What parts of the world around you, and those in your life are like the cold you have, or the pain you feel? Elaborate to yourself or to another what feels painful. Chances are, there is a lot of dissonance and disconnection because we don’t have the full image of who the person is, of who we are, even to ourselves. To overcome our fixedness, we are called to “reinterpret old information”. What kinds of stories have you told yourself are rooted in painful periods of your life, what kinds of symptoms relate to the person you were then? How can they be reinterpreted to reflect the person you are now?

“Functional fixedness, the research says, tends to overlook four types of features possessed by a problem object (parts, material, shape and size) because of the functions closely associated with the object and its parts.”

What does your disease reveal about what you overlook about yourself? What are the parts of your life that you have overlooked to be the way you are? What qualities, the material fabric of your life, have been compromised to be who you are? Where does your disease reveal you are bulging, where are the leakages in who you are? Where are you inconsistencies in how you feel about living? It is not innately bad that have cake with your peppermint tea. Where are you overlooking your dimensions? What is the scope of who you are? Do you eat like you are eating for two? Do you feel pain that is beyond what can be felt for one person? Where are you only seeing part of the image of who you are? Do you ever give yourself a break?

Do you ever consider that roots can look like branches? Why do you keep treating yourself like a leaf, when you’re really a root?


Chinese Medicine in Context

Hou Po – Magnolia Officinalis (Magnolia Bark) 

Did you know that in addition to acupuncture Chinese medicine also incorporates a variety of modalities of health intervention? As human beings are dynamic, complex and represent a host of needs and are informed by both by their DNA and environment, Chinese medicine aims to approach wellness with a similar dynamic system of diagnostic tools and modalities.

One of those modalities central to the consideration of CM being a whole medicine is Chinese Herbology. Chinese herbal medicine consists of hundreds of individual herbs that have been used successfully for thousands of years to treat every health condition from uterine fibroids, to recalcitrant skin rashes, to infantile seizures, as well as the “sensation of a charred piece of meat lodged in the throat”—a condition called “Plumpit Qi”, where there is no physical presence of a foreign object in the throat, though an uncanny inability to speak up, to clear the throat, to feel at ease in the chest.

This rich lineage of the study of the dynamics and medical usage of herbs is a testament to the fact that human beings and plants have evolved alongside one another. The oversight of the utility of herbs in preventative and ongoing healthcare is an unfortunate modern consequence of a cultural perspective that tends to deem the natural environment as an obstacle, dead and surmountable.

Chinese herbal medicine will be a key feature in the overhaul of healthcare in the United States. There are already prominent hospitals, such as the Cleveland Clinic, that are beginning to incorporate Chinese herbal medicine as a viable feature of treatment for ongoing care.

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-top-hospital-opens-up-to-chinese-herbs-as-medicines-1398121116

Herbs, plants in general, tend to grow in communities. There are few plants that will thrive alone. As such, we are then able to apply this general rule to the way in which herbs have not only historically been used, from a CM perspective, but also the way in which they become more dynamic and effective in the treatment of human health concerns. In other words, when we use herbs in Chinese Medicine, we more often than not use them in the context of a formula, consisting of three or more herbs to address each condition.

These formulas can consist of a variety of methods of preparation depending on the condition. For instance, one of the most effective methods of formular preparation is in the decoction, or Tang, which basically means “soup” in Chinese. As such, the herbs are weighed out in proper proportion, choosing a major one or two major herbs to enact a very specific medical action to address the diagnosis that has been assessed through an office intake; oral, pulse and tongue examination. A few additional herbs will often be included to further “hone” the formula to address an outlying symptom, or to direct the action of the formula to a particular region of the body. For instance, the herb Mu Gua might be added to a formula to address cramping in the calf, if a patient presents with back pain that is rooted in blood deficiency. The main action of the formula is to address the back pain, but Mu Gua might be added to relax the gastrocnemius in the calf, so as to return blood flow to that particular region, which is contributing to the pain.

The herbs work more synergistically in combination with one another, not unlike their tendency to support thrivance in the context of a garden.

Springtime in DC:

Springtime is beginning to arrive in the greater DC area, albeit with a few hiccups of snow and cold weather. The Spring in Chinese Medicine is often associated with new growth, blooming, starting new projects, and waking from the more internally-focused and conservation-oriented Wintertime.

During this time, there is a lot of change—what is frozen begins to thaw, what is cold begins to warm. The change in the environment can often be directly observed in the human body. The rich lineage of Chinese medicine really describes a detailed and beautiful survey of recognizing direct correlations to what happens to the plants outside when the Spring winds arrive, what happens to the buds when the cold snaps for another week. In other words, as we have evolved alongside plants, Chinese medical practitioners observed that we could also track the change of an individual’s health, and over time develop predictable signs and symptoms emerging at this particular period of the year.

One of the observable changes of Spring is the abundance of wind. Wind tends to be erratic, unpredictable, and it is this time of year that we see an abundance of individuals complaining of experiencing a lot of sinus issues, congestion, headaches, constipation, and a sensation of “clearing out”. The slumber of winter gives way to cabin fever, and we run outside with shorts or t-shirts on, and inadvertently get caught in a snow spell. The next week, we notice our office mates are dropping like flies, and we’re determined to not catch the bug that’s moving quickly and erratically. Inevitably, we catch a similar bug, spend a couple days to a week in bed, and then we meet the rest of Spring with a readiness for the new year.

Sometimes that cough, that chest oppression, or congestion stays for a month, maybe even two.

We find that in Chinese Medicine, in a state of equilibrium, the body will be able to meet the changing season. However, when an individual has underlying dampness, underlying heat or deficiencies, or other obstructions, the ability to meet these changes becomes a little more difficult. The phlegm in our chest sticks around a little bit longer, and we get that sensation of Plumpit Qi that just never seems to resolve.

Hou Po – Magnolia Bark – a go-to Chinese Herb for the Spring:


Despite the recent snowfall, it is not difficult to begin to notice the bloom of the world-famous cherry blossoms in DC. In addition, one of my absolute favorite plants that is also turning the sky pink/purple and white is the Magnolia tree. In Chinese Medicine, this plant has multiple parts that are utilized to address various health concerns, often developing at this time of year. One of those herbs is Hou Po – Magnolia officinalis, or Magnolia Bark.

In the Materia Medica (Bensky, Clavey & Stoger), an extensive text describing the dynamic history, reference/research and usage of herbs, designated to categories related to patterns of diagnosis and differentiation, Hou Po is said to have these following properties:

This herb is bitter, acrid and aromatic, warm in nature and enters the Lung, Large Intestine, Spleen and Stomach meridians.

And, has the following therapeutic actions:

  • Promotes the movement of Qi in the middle jiao and resolves food stagnation. For Qi stagnation affecting the Spleen and Stomach and food stagnation with chest and or abdominal fullness.
  • Promotes the movement of Qi downward, dries dampness and transforms phlegm. For dampness or phlegm obstructing the middle jiao with distention, fullness, nausea and diarrhea.
  • Descends rebellious Qi, reduces phlegm and calms wheezing. For cough and wheezing due to phlegm congesting the Lungs.
  • Source: (http://www.americandragon.com/Individualherbsupdate/HouPo.html)

Wind, from a Chinese medicine perspective is often seen as the cause of a hundred diseases, meaning that change, the volatile and unpredictable nature of spring is at the root of all dis-ease. Our health is often gauged by our capacity to not simply meet our environment, but to make sense of when things are inconsistent. Like the blizzard of DC two days ago, meeting the bright sun and warm breeze today—our bodies can become easily shaken by this environmental inconsistency.

Hou Po – Magnolia officinalis is organized in the Materia Medica as belonging to the category of Aromatic Herbs that Dispel Dampness. The acrid/aromatic taste typically corresponds to the Lungs, as often aroma contains within it volatile essential oils that have a very quick and potent effect that lasts for a short period of time. For instance, if you were to cook a meal that included cardamom or mint, you would want to add these spices in the last 3-5 minutes to obtain not simply the greatest aromatic and flavor benefit, but also the greatest digestive benefit.

It is important then, in this particular season to incorporate herbs like Hou Po that are aromatic, as they are able to remind the internal organs, especially the Lung, how to adapt quickly, without much struggle.

It is not surprising, then, to consider why Hou Po is described as reducing Qi stagnation, that especially effects the digestive system and the chest, leading to coughing and wheezing. Due to the overall slower and insular quality of winter, our bodies tend to accumulate sluggish fluids, that begin to act like blocks of dirty and compacted snow in the streets after several storms and snowplow efforts to clear a path. When Spring comes, our ability to jump outside and meet the influence of wind/change, meets the blocks of muddy snow in our bodies. This then contributes to the inability for the Lungs to remain clear and vigilant, and we get coughing and wheezing, and nausea from all the fluid accumulating in the digestive system.

Thus, Hou Po becomes an exquisite herb to bring a quick-acting warmth, almost white-hot fire, to address the muddied ice obstructing our Lungs. When the Lungs are obstructed, we are unable to meet our environment in real-time. When this becomes a repetitive pattern in the body, we might find ourselves, Spring after spring, with a chronic cough that seems to last longer each year.

Chinese Herbs and our relationship to them, rely on our alliance with mutual observation and appreciation.

Hou Po – Magnolia officinalis is not simply a beautiful backdrop in that volatile and confusing Spring transition—it is really an environmental inquiry into our level of affinity. Affinity, from a Daoist perspective, describes the way in which something catches our attention, or the degree to which we find ourselves involved with a particular phenomenon. Magnolia flower, Xin Yi Hua, similarly, though more directed in its therapeutic action, is spicy and warm, and is used for stuffy nose, congestion, discharge, loss of smell, and sinus headache. When the orifices, including the sinuses or the eyes are blocked, we cannot engage with our environment readily. We can’t see the full picture, we can’t sense the entire image, and our encounter is incomplete. Completion is about the earth element, connection, feeling and knowing the way in which your environment is in support of who you are. Flowers bloom to draw attention to the aesthetic, the sight; when the nose is blocked, their aromatic qualities draw our noses to lean in for a whiff when our eyes are teary, when our necks get stiff and tight from the wind because there is too much happening around us. When we crane in to have a relationship with the herb, we develop a relationship with the way in which we are anchored by our affinity, the clarity of our gaze or direction when the winds are blowing in multiple directions. Its quality to aromatically transform dampness leans into its capacity to clear away the accumulations, the stagnation of winter—which relate to all that is akin to the metal element. The metal element relates to that time of year when we must encounter the death of patterns that no longer serve us, materials in the body that are no longer viable or useable resources.

The difficulty with these patterns is that they can begin to spill into the Spring, those unusable materials begin to become waste that contributes to oxidative stress in the body.

The following research describes the role that Hou Po – Magnolia officianalis has in the what is called the NRF2 pathway. In recent years it has “emerged as the central pathway that protects cells from variety of stressors” (http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/27721050)

NFE2L2 or NRF2 is “a transcription factor that in humans is encoded by the NFE2L2 gene.” It is “a basic leucine zipper protein that regulates the expression of antioxidant proteins that protect against oxidative damage triggered by injury and inflammation” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NFE2L2). These proteins are cytoplasmic protectors, meaning they secure the semi-permeable barriers and regulate genetic expression.

In other words, the bark of Magnolia, much like the skin (the largest organ of the body and governed by the Lungs in Chinese Medicine) acts to guard the body from the dynamic invasion of Spring weather. It does so by clearing out, aromatically, the remnants of the last year that prevent us from meeting the new one. It does so by preserving and regulating the way in which our DNA unfolds, despite the chaos of a changing external.

Magnolia bark, not surprisingly, has been used in ritual Daoism to assist people in dealing with grief, especially related to the loss of relatives and loved ones. The plant as a whole remains a DC-native reminder of strength, beauty and affinity for new life in dying of old ways of being, old health patterns that prevent us from accepting renewed and different experiences of wellness.

When you get a chance today, or this week, do not hesitate to take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the Magnolia. She holds your attention, she wants to offer you injections of dynamic warmth that hit you as unexpectedly as the wind. Her aroma returns to you the memory what it is like to be born, to be new after periods of our life that are like hard winters filled with scarcity and uncertainty.

I wish you beauty this afternoon, of the pink/purple and white nature, brown-scales of armor that provide you with protection as the wind continues to do what wind does for the remaining weeks of winter.

I wish you comfort in knowing that Hou Po’s affinity for the Lung and Stomach, can gently drape you in the metaphor of a constant sense and state of community growing out of your environment, living entities that want so deeply to know you, and for you to know them.

Thank you for reading today. Enjoy your afternoon!